A Career In Therapy: What To Major In To Be A Therapist

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti
Updated February 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Are you interested in helping people through difficult times? Do you enjoy thinking about and understanding how the mind works? If so, a career in therapy could be the right fit for you. Becoming a therapist requires specialized training and education, but with dedication and hard work, you can become one of the many licensed, qualified counselors who provide support to individuals in need of quality mental health care. 

To start working toward becoming a therapist, it can be vital to understand which kind of degree and qualifications are necessary and which courses you’ll need to take while earning your degree. This guide includes some important considerations to keep in mind on your journey to becoming a therapist. 

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Paths to becoming a therapist

Becoming a therapist can be a rewarding career choice that involves joining the cause of improving our overall mental health. According to the American Psychological Association, psychology programs in the US produce nearly 5,000 new doctorates in various fields of psychology every year. In order to join this path, interested individuals often start by obtaining a bachelor's degree, followed by a master's degree and relevant licensure, depending on their career goals.

There are many types of therapists, so the area you major in may differ depending on the degree you want in psychology or counseling. Substance abuse professionals and counselors in some states may only be required to get a bachelor’s degree, whereas all other forms of therapists and counselors must have at least a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling. 

What should I major in?

Individuals can pursue a variety of options to prepare for a career in therapy. Some of the most common majors include psychology, social work, counseling, and sociology. A major in psychology can be a good choice for future therapists since it provides a solid understanding of human behavior, thought processes, and emotions. This major also explores cognitive and developmental psychology topics and may cover treatment strategies used in different therapeutic approaches.

Majoring in psychology is not a requirement, however, and it can be important to check the prerequisite requirements of the graduate programs you’re considering. In some cases, as long as you’ve completed these prerequisites, the major you choose might not matter. Still, most students choose psychology since it falls in line with the requirements of admission to many graduate therapy programs. 

Sociology is another popular major for those interested in a career in therapy. This major focuses on helping individuals, families, and communities overcome various social issues that may impact mental health. Sociology often leads to social work graduate programs, which is another potential path to becoming a therapist. These programs may offer coursework in family dynamics, community development, and intervention strategies, all of which can be valuable tools for therapists.

The final step to becoming a therapist is earning a master's degree in counseling or a related field, completing a certain number of supervised clinical hours, and obtaining a license in your state. Many programs offer the prerequisites required to get a license as a clinical mental health counselor.

While the path to becoming a therapist can be challenging, the benefits of the career can make it all worthwhile. If you are interested in helping others improve their mental health and well-being while being involved in a dynamic and constantly evolving field, pursuing a career in therapy may be the right choice for you.

Different types of therapists

If you are thinking about becoming a therapist, it may be helpful to consider what type of therapist you’d like to become before you choose your major. There are several types of therapists, each of which consists of its own unique prerequisites, focus, and style of work. Some of the different kinds of therapists are explored in more detail below: 

Psychiatrist 

psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental illness and behavioral disorders. They are trained in both psychotherapy and medication management and often work in collaboration with other mental health professionals such as psychologists and social workers, for instance. To become a psychiatrist, you’ll need to attend medical school and receive an advanced doctorate degree. For this reason, a psychiatrist is more of a doctor than a therapist or mental health counselor. 

Unlike other types of therapists, psychiatrists can prescribe medication to help alleviate the symptoms of mental illness. They may also have extensive training in the biological and physiological aspects of mental illness and can provide a more medical-based and comprehensive approach to treatment. Some psychologists choose not to offer mental health counseling to clients. 

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Licensed marriage and family therapist

Licensed marriage and family therapists specialize in working with couples and families. They are licensed mental health professionals who hold a master's degree in marriage and family therapy or a related field and are trained to provide therapy to individuals, couples, and families. The key strategy for a family therapist (LMFT) may include the use of a systemic approach to therapy, which means that they see individuals and their problems in the context of their relationships and social networks. 

One of the key differences between licensed marriage and family therapists and other therapists is their focus on relationships within mental health counseling. While other therapists may focus primarily on individual issues like anxiety or depression, marriage and family therapists prioritize the dynamics between people. This may include the dynamic between romantic partners, family, or even friends. They may work to help individuals and families identify and change unhelpful patterns of behavior and build healthier relationships.

Mental health counselor

mental health counselor is a licensed therapist who provides counseling and therapy to individuals, groups, and families who are experiencing mental health concerns and other emotional issues. Mental health counselors may focus on diagnosing and treating mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. They can work closely with clients to develop personalized treatment plans that address their unique needs and goals. 

There are varying levels and specialties of mental health counselors. To work in clinical mental health counseling, individuals may need to obtain a master's degree in counseling and get licensed by their state to practice therapy in a clinical setting. In addition to providing individual and group therapy, mental health counselors may also offer consultation to other healthcare professionals, assist in substance misuse programs, or participate in research and education in the field of mental health.

Social worker

Social workers are trained professionals who help individuals, families, and communities manage and cope with a wide range of issues such as poverty, addiction, abuse, mental illness, and more. Unlike mental health counselors who typically focus on treating psychological conditions, social workers are trained to address the mental, physical, and social needs of their clients. 

Social workers can differ from other therapists in their approach to therapy. While some therapists may focus solely on the individual's psychological issues, social workers often take a more holistic approach to treatment by analyzing social and environmental factors that may be contributing to an individual’s present situation. They work to create change not only in the individual, but also in their environment. This could include their family, community, or workplace.

To become a social worker, individuals must obtain a bachelor's or master's degree in social work. They must then become licensed in their state, which requires passing a licensure exam and completing a certain number of supervised clinical hours.

The benefits of becoming a therapist

Becoming a therapist can be a fulfilling and rewarding career choice for those who are passionate about helping others improve their mental health and overall quality of life. Here are some benefits of pursuing a career in therapy:

Job stability and growth

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of mental health counselors is projected to grow 22% between 2021 and 2031, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. This means that there will likely be plenty of job opportunities for those with the right qualifications and experience. Mental health care could also be a stable career choice since quality care is needed to address the growing number of individuals seeking therapeutic assistance. 

Diverse career paths

There are many different specializations within the field of therapy, including marriage and family therapy, addiction counseling, school counseling, and more. There are also a variety of budding paths in the counseling field, including medication-assisted treatment, holistic therapy, and depth psychology. This means that individuals can focus on a path that aligns with their interests and strengths as they progress in their careers. Many therapists are also exploring new ways to deliver mental health services. This includes teletherapy, which allows therapists to provide counseling services through video conferencing, phone calls, or messaging. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of teletherapy, and many therapists are now incorporating it into their practices. 

Flexibility

Many therapists are self-employed or work in personal practice, which can offer them more flexibility and control over their schedule. Moreover, some therapists work remotely or offer teletherapy services, which can provide even more flexibility in terms of where, when, and how they choose to work. If freedom and flexibility are valuable to you, then a career in therapy may be fitting.

Personal growth

Being a therapist requires self-awareness and emotional intelligence, which can help you grow and develop as a person. Additionally, the work of helping others navigate their mental health challenges may result in rewarding and meaningful interactions with individuals from all walks of life. 

Competitive salary

A therapist's salary can vary depending on factors such as location, experience, and specialization. Still, the median annual salary for mental health counselors was $48,520 in 2021. Those with advanced degrees and/or specialized training may command higher salaries.

Online therapy

Many therapists have chosen to take their work online. Some have adopted a hybrid schedule, while others practice entirely virtually. Online therapy offers individuals who may be experiencing mental health challenges a more approachable and reachable option for therapy. For example, those living with anxiety or depression may find it difficult to open up about their emotions during in-person therapy. Further, individuals who have busy schedules may find that online therapy allows them more flexibility in scheduling. 

With online platforms like BetterHelp, those in need of mental health care can receive the support they need from the comfort of their home. BetterHelp has thousands of licensed counselors who are experienced and trained in a wide variety of areas. Instead of tediously searching for someone who is the right fit for you, you can let BetterHelp match you with a therapist who meets your needs and preferences. This can make it easier to get the care you need.

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The efficacy of online therapy

Research has shown that online therapy is just as effective as in-person therapy for addressing a wide variety of mental health concerns. In a review of 17 studies, researchers found that online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) was just as effective as in-person therapy in treating symptoms of depression in adults. 

Takeaway

There are various majors that interested individuals may choose to pursue to become a therapist. The most common major is psychology, perhaps due to its relevant coursework and ability to prepare students for a career in therapy. Students may also decide to major in other relevant subjects such as social work, counseling, or sociology. Therapy is a growing field with many different specialties to choose from, allowing interested individuals the freedom to forge their own unique paths. Some therapists may focus on a specific area of concern, while others might work with people facing a variety of different issues.  

Some professionals may conduct sessions from an office, while others may choose to take their practice online. Many therapists have found that the online setting gives them a healthier work-life balance and allows their clients to open up to them more comfortably. To learn more and experience therapy yourself, reach out to BetterHelp today.

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